Yesterday’s Disrupters are Today’s Modern Conveniences: Microbiology
By Nell Mackenzie
Yesterday’s Disrupters are Today’s Modern Conveniences: Microbiology
18 Dec 2015 - Uncategorized

In the Middle Ages, the recipe to make mice called for a pair of dirty underwear and some wheat grain. Yes, that’s right, you could mix up your overdue laundry with some wheat and you’d be guaranteed a bucket of critters in 21 days or less. The implications of putting wheat kernels in your pants no doubt horrified the public at the time. 


Francesco Redi disproved this in 1668 with experiments using meat and maggots. He illustrated that if you leave a steak on a table, but covered it in cheesecloth, flies wouldn’t land on it and maggots would not appear.

Over the next two hundred years, the public accepted that animals you could see were born, bred, or hatched. The idea that there were living things you couldn’t see acting the same way took a little longer to catch on. When the 19th century rolled around, the leading scientific powers in Paris were ready to put this idea of ‘Spontaneous Generation’ to bed.

However, things were not going to go according to their plan.

Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 14.43.30Félix Archimède Pouchet published Heterogenie in 1859– a report about a series of experiments with chicken broth where he claimed that when you boiled broth to kill microbes (the little micro-organisms that breed in food when it goes off) they would regenerate themselves from nothing and/or ‘the hand of God’.

This was regarded as a step backward. The whole mice thing had been disproven and the French were now hoping someone would find a new way to explain the birth of the squiggly moving shapes scientists observed under their microscopes.

Enter: Louis Pasteur credited with pasteurization, modern day vaccinations and microbiology.  Sharing the stage:  a regulating body offering fame and hard cold cash for some alternative proof.

French science was regulated. Formal Commissions were assigned to listen and adjudicate when scientists published papers or argued with prevailing truths.

The Academie des Sciences was Paris’s scientific version of the European Commission and it was dead set against the idea of ‘Spontaneous Generation’. The Academie offered 2,500 francs to whomever ‘by well conducted experiments throws new light on the question of so-called spontaneous generations’.Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 14.27.02

Louis Pasteur, already a well-known personality in these circles, stepped up to the game, but he was already the house bet.

You assume that there is a benign wind that separates the wheat from the chaff, especially when science is involved. But in some cases, having a regulatory body means your science wins, whether it lives up to the scientific method, or not.

Six men were initially appointed to the Academie’s commission that would decide who won the argument about ‘Spontaneous Generation’. Two had announced their decision against Poulet’s experiments before they read Poulet’s paper or saw his evidence. One person on the commission, Antoine Balard, was not only Pasteur’s tutor, but it has been said that he helped Pasteur come up with the winning idea.

flaskRegardless of the fact that Louis Pasteur was no scientific underdog whose heroic discovery mastered adversity, his famous swan neck flask experiments did the job.

Pasteur filled a flask with chicken broth, but then heated and re-shaped the neck of the flask so no air could reach the broth once it had been (pasteurized) boiled.  Any microbes in the air got caught in the neck of the flask and the broth stayed clear of microbes, finally putting to rest ‘Spontaneous Generation’ and garnering Pasteur the 2,500 francs.

Questions about scientific process still linger for Pasteur, whose laboratory notes were finally released a century after his experiments.  They illustrate a political operator who stole ideas, lied about experimental evidence and even, in the famous case of his rabies vaccine, tested on a young boy before he had conclusive evidence from his animal subjects.  Not only did Pasteur have all the plaudits, he also had all the coin. At one point, he received 10% of all government grants in France to run his famous foundation.

The French government was lucky in that Louis Pasteur had a lifelong habit of being right.

At the end of the day, the good guy won because, he achieved progress despite using the right science.